Whitley Belfield Blue Plaque - Primley HouseThe history of the Zoo and its founder Herbert Whitley and The Whitley Wildlife Trust.

The Whitley family had accrued their wealth through the brewery business in the Manchester, Liverpool, and Merseyside area, trading as ‘Greenall-Whitley’. Mr. Edward and Mrs. Eleanor Whitley had four sons and soon after Mr Whitley died, she bought, in 1904, the Belfield Estate at Primley, Paignton.

Adjoining Primley House were 16 large greenhouses in which Herbert cultivated many exotic species. Herbert had always been interested in wildlife, and was encouraged by his mother by the gift of a pair of canaries. He expanded his collection with finches, rabbits and poultry. His prize collection were blue and black cropper pigeons, which remained close to his heart all his life. Everything he tried to do was in the name of science. He developed the greenhouses into a miniature jungle and added fish and amphibians. Monkeys joined the collection in 1910. A year later he obtained a pair of sulphur-crested cockatoos which were the beginning of one of the finest exotic bird collections in the world.

In 1921, he discovered that Slapton Ley was threatened with development so he bought it, to preserve it as a nature haven and wildlife habitat.   He and his knowledge were appreciated by many naturalist of renown, like Peter Scott of Swimbridge fame, Len Hill a man who bought some islands in the Falklands to preserve them for penguins, and Gerald Durrell the naturalist of the Channel Island fame and his Zoological Gardens there.

Herbert had a love for all things blue and bred many plants and animals of that hue. He was a very private man, a chain smoker and a workaholic. He had no wish to commercially exploit his collection, but he was eventually persuaded by local people to open his 75 acre site to the public in 1923. In an effort to keep out trouble makers that tried to annoy some of his animals, he introduced a small charge. Customs and Excise got to hear about this and tried to make him pay an entertainment tax. He refused, stating that his collection was a place of learning not entertainment, so he closed the doors in 1924. He re-opened in 1927 but again closed it in 1937 after another problem with the authorities.

When World War II came in 1939 he started to make arrangements to disperse part of his collection, but in 1940 made a deal with the owner of Chessington Zoo which also included a ‘circus’ to house much of that collection. There was a chimp’s tea party, strong man act and much more. There is a lovely story that when he introduced a bear to the zoo, on collecting it from the railway station, the bear’s feet came through the bottom of the crate. His men threaded two long handles through the crate and walked the bear to Primley. He was ahead of his time as he was concerned with breeding programmes, not just putting animals on display. At that time animals were kept in cages, but at Primley he developed a plan to give them paddocks and enclosures where they could range more freely. His ‘Barbary Sheep’ were one of the first to benefit from this plan. There is a report that once a Leopard escaped, and as the site was surrounded by Clennon Valley, a well wooded area, it had a good chance for survival but had to be shot for the public’s safety.

In 1961, a Mr Menzies was appointed as full time Education Officer. In 1973, the baboons were provided with a rock-like enclosure, and in 1977, a small herd of elephants were introduced with their specially built enclosure in which they could wander with some freedom. By 1995, the zoo was struggling to survive financially, but thanks to a £2.9 million grant they pulled through. In 1996, the Paignton Environmental Park had a very full reconstruction. A new entrance was created, a better tropical house was constructed to house orchids, gingers, reptiles and even ninja turtles, (a short time craze as pets at that soon wore off,) were found a home. A new restaurant was built as well as animal enclosures.

Herbert Whitley tried to protect so many breeds with conservation, breeding, education, scientific research and protection of habitats. Definitely a man with a vision, who developed a worldwide network of zoos and breeding establishments. Each year Paignton Zoo plays host to half a million visitors and up to fifty thousand educational trips.  During World War II, he ran a centre for specially trained message carrying pigeons, dispatched to London every three or four weeks, to be dropped behind enemy lines, then returning to their lofts at Primley with information in tiny sealed containers, where dispatch riders were waiting to ferry them immediately to the War Office.

After his death in 1955, Slapton Ley Trust was set up, now known as a Fields Study Centre. His brother William had purchased the Buckland in the Moor estate and continued farming it until his death, when his sons took over. There was even talk of developing Holwell into a wildlife park for some exotic animals, but this proved impractical. Research continues at Paignton, thanks to the legacy left by Herbert. This research is also channeled to the welfare of animals living all over the world. From a local aspect, plants, Dormice and the Cirl Bunting have all benefited from research at Paignton into their habitats and needs. On a wider plain, tropical forests have also gained from research done there.

Herbert Whitley was always aware of the need to respect animals, and to treat them well. He understood the natural world and its connection to the environment. He also cared for the welfare of his staff. He wanted to persuade everyone to connect to The Living World, that was his big vision.
His vision lives on, now known as Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust administered by a group of Trustees … If he could see it now, Herbert Whitley would be delighted how it has progressed and how his dream has been perpetuated.
Anyone wishing to learn more about Herbert Whitley and his lifetimes work can do no better than to read:-
‘Chimps, Champs and Elephants’ by Jack Baker. ISBN 1 870910 00 1.